Banner: Detail from Aerial Suspension, 2009. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Clare Strand

An exhibition like Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers does not strive to appear palatable. It does not come to life with the sole purpose of aesthetic intent, it does not try to look "pleasurable" – and it should not have to. It is an ambitious exhibition that looks at gender disparity in the art world and in photography, and aims to correct the narrative that there have not been many innovative female photographers. It is an exhibition that fills in the gaps of British photographic history from the 19th century until the present day, reclaiming space for women to tell their story.

It has been a little over hundred years since the Suffragettes emerged, and yet somehow, being a woman and affirming your place, especially in the art world, is still very much seen as an act of political warfare. It is not that diversity is a new thing – it has always existed. It is just that now, self-identifying women have become more visible, people of colour have become more visible, the LGBTQ+ community is more visible, and so on. By de-centering the West, by looking at things from the margins, by making space and offering platforms for those who have been historically overlooked to express their different experiences, galleries and museums have opened up their public programmes and their exhibition displays to scrutiny, acknowledging the need not only to question their past but also to use it in order to shape a different future for cultural institutions, one where the communities they serve are thoughtfully and equally represented.


Urania from the series Zabat, 1989, Maud Sulter © The Estate of Maud Sulter courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland

"Women in Photography" is not by all means an ultimately inclusive, finite exhibition, but rather an open door from which a conversation about representation in its many forms can evolve. It is an exhibition that you want to go into, to look at, and come out enraged, hopeful, and ready to take action. Enraged; because history has only allowed many of these women to become recognised long after their male counterparts did, and so many more to be erased and forgotten for being deemed "not artistic enough" by their contemporaries. Hopeful; because corrective actions such as this exhibition, and the discussion around it have begun to take shape much more frequently in recent years. And ready to take action; because we live in an age and time when it is both extremely difficult, and equally thrilling to be a woman, as pointed out by the Time’s up and #metoo movements.

Over twenty percent of the photographers in the exhibition are not British-born, although they have lived and worked in the UK at some point in their careers. Ingrid Pollard was born in Georgetown, Guyana, Mitra Tabrizian is an Iranian native who studied at the Polytechnic of Central London in the 1980s, both of which are perceived as having British identities. There is a lengthy discussion about Britishness, colonialism and race that arises from this fact and it seems only fitting that their inclusion in the display invites viewers to examine further, especially in the present context of Brexit, the rising number of hate crimes, and Islamophobia.

The photographers who respond to the subject of diaspora explore the migration of people, as well as their own families and their sense of having multiple social and cultural identities, reflecting our society as it was and as it is now. Through looking at the works in the exhibition one can begin to reflect on how female photographers have used the medium to underline traditions, as well as challenge the status quo.

To delve deeper into issues surrounding gender disparity in the art world, a panel discussion with Anna Fox and Karen Knorr, chaired by Jean Wainwright, will look at the significance of uncovering hidden histories and revealing new role models for women photographers. Anna Fox and Karen Knorr are Professors of Photography and Jean Wainwright is Professor of Contemporary Art and Photography at University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. Free to attend, Fast Forward: Her Stories in Photography takes place on 30 May 2019 from 6.00pm, in collaboration with UCA, Farnham.

Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers is on display in our Main Gallery until 2 June 2019. Entrance to the exhibition costs just £5.00 with a Day Pass, or £7.50 with an Annual Pass, and includes entry to both Main and Upper Gallery shows.